Monday, June 21, 2021

akhu and oasis

In Pharaoh's famous dream, he was standing by the river, 

"when out of the Nile there came up seven cows, handsome and sturdy, and they grazed in the reed grass." (Bereshit 41:2)

The word translated here as "reed grass" is akhu אחו in Hebrew. Other translations include "marsh grass," "marshland," or "meadow." The word only appears a few more times in the Bible - once later in the chapter, when Pharaoh retells his dream (41:18), and in Hoshea 13:15 ("For though he flourish among reeds" - in the plural form אחים achim) and Iyov 8:11 ("Can papyrus thrive without marsh? Can rushes grow without water?).

Due to its first appearance in Pharaoh's dream, it should not be too surprising that it has an Egyptian origin. R. Aryeh Kaplan writes, "Achu in the Hebrew, from the Egyptian Akhi." Sarna, in the the JPS commentary on Genesis, similarly notes:

Hebrew 'ahu, from an Egyptian loan word that originally meant the land flooded by the Nile, and then came to be used for pastureland in general. From Egyptian it passed into Hebrew and other Semitic languages.

From those other Semitic languages, we  may get a familiar word in English. Stahl, in his entry for the Arabic word waha, says that it also derives from the Coptic (Ancient Egyptian) word that gave Hebrew akhu. In Arabic waha means "oasis", which a lush meadow could would certainly have been seen as in the desert.

Stahl goes on to say that the word "oasis" itself also came from the same Egyptian root, via Greek. An early mention of the Egyptian origin of "oasis" can be found in the writings of the Greek historian Herodotus. A full etymology is offered by the Online Etymology Dictionary:

"fertile spot in a desert, where there is a spring or well and more or less vegetation," originally in reference to the Libyan desert, 1610s, from French oasis (18c.) and directly from Late Latin oasis, from Greek oasis, probably from Hamitic (compare Coptic wahe, ouahe "oasis," properly "dwelling place," from ouih "dwell"). The same Egyptian source produced Arabic wahah. Figurative sense of "any fertile place in the midst of a waste" is by 1800.

I found it interesting that today, Al-Waha refers to "an immersion-based Arabic-language camp for students." I suppose that's similar to the ulpan for learning Hebrew. I can certainly imagine that any place dedicated to learning a new language would be a kind of oasis...

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